Hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo

Paul Adamson
February 28, 2017

In 2008 UK law changed that made it an offence to claim that a product will benefit your health if you couldn’t produce evidence to justify the claim. ‘Product’ included services. 

This is one of the Trading Standard laws (The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008) and it means if you’re a practitioner of alternative medicine you can’t claim that you can do what you can’t prove you can do. Many people practising in alternative medicines were up in arms about this change in the law but I don’t see why. If a homeopath tells me that homeopathy can cure malaria and AIDS, then I want peer-reviewed scientific backing that this is so. I confess I’m no fan of homeopathy – I almost lost my hearing years ago when a French homeopathic doctor (the only doctor in the French village I was staying at) gave me a completely ineffectual ‘medicine’ for what turned out to be a severe ear infection. Quack doctors used to go from town to town selling all sorts of bogus medicines that, they claimed, cured any manner of illnesses. Alternative practitioners that do the same in a swanky therapy room in Islington are just modern day quack doctors and it’s right that we should be protected from them by law.

Mind you, when a GP in an NHS practice tells the patient who’s come to see him with back pain that he should take a paracetamol, that too is a kind of quackery. Paracetamol won’t ‘cure’ your back pain – it is thought to work by blocking COX enzymes in the brain and spinal cord, so it blocks the pain messengers – which is not at all the same thing as bringing your back back to health.

Go into any hospital geriatric ward and you will see people lying in bed with no quality of life and no chance of re-gaining any quality of life. Yet our society is so frightened by the taboo of death that we keep these people alive, sometimes for years. This too is quackery.

But to get back to alternative medicines and therapies, it’s right – surely? – that therapists should not claim things that they cannot prove.

Most practitioners of conventional medicine will allow that massage is not a form of quack medicine – as long as it does not claim to do things it cannot do. Dr Stephen Barrett is a prominent anti-quackery activist. In an article on his popular website, QuackWatch, Barrett condemns common non-massage practices in massage therapy, but not massage itself: “Ordinary massage and the legitimate practice of massage therapy should not be categorized as quackery.” 

I never say to someone, ‘I can cure your back pain’ or ‘I can cure your headache’. Cure is a big word and I’ve never used it. I know I can often make people feel better, I can help them manage their pain, I even often treat someone and the pain completely disappears. But I do not claim massage will do things I do not think it can do. And I keep well away from ear candling, crystal therapy, iridology and gong therapy. Apologies to all those gong therapists out there.


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